It's midsummer as this issue sees print, and the quiet time since those year-end recitals and juries has been most welcomed. After thirty weeks of lessons, I'm ready for a change. The longer the term goes on, the more I feel that I can't hear my students' progress—I'm too close to them, too familiar with their tendencies. They undoubtedly feel the same way about me. On an early morning walk in my tree-shaded neighborhood, I unravel the cacophony of the term.
The school concerto competition happened back in January: one of my students won, but another who plays quite well didn't make the finals. No matter—a week later, the second student won out over the first in a competition out of town.
A few weeks after that, I attended a recital by a young competition winner who was performing on the artist series in town. This particular night, the immensely talented young pianist, whose Chopin Preludes recording I liked very much, left me cold. I wondered how this could be the same artist. In fact, I heard in him many of the tendencies I hear in my own students: sloppy rhythm, short-changed rests, a lack of legato. I went home in a bad mood. A month later, a well-known veteran of the concert stage performed on the same series—playing beyond fault, but emotionally reserved. The mechanics of the playing were so perfect that a mistake was out of the question. One admired the control, yet longed for some personal exposure.
As I walk I think of another of my students who had played a recital around the same time. Here's a young man from a sheltered background, home-schooled, quiet, shy, certainly no globe-trotting virtuoso. As he plays in this, only his third recital ever, he misses some things, fouls up some tempo relationships, but he also makes some ravishingly beautiful sounds, especially in the second half of his program. I notice that he pauses longer at the end of a phrase than I've heard before in a lesson, stretching out the meaning, listening to it with his whole being. He makes me hear it, even though I've heard him play this same moment many times before. The moments multiply; by the end of the program I realize I have heard more music made by my student than by either of the artists downtown.
It may seem unfair to compare world-class artists to my students, but isn't it true that music making is something that takes one's whole being? Immense talent is certainly helpful in making a career, but anyone who invests integrity and authenticity into the act of music making stands a good chance of moving a listener.
Alas, my student won't have a big playing career. He started piano too late to lay down the circuitry needed for a flawless technique and to develop the sharp, sensitive ear that one needs to learn music quickly and unerringly. But he can make music. He can communicate a musical message that is honest, from the heart, and ultimately moving.
How could this happen, I wondered. What occurred to me during my student's recital was that the music itself had changed the student. My teaching was only a small part of it—it was much more a result of the degree to which the student opened himself up to the music, and let it build his consciousness. His emotional sensitivity was not only heightened by the music he played, but created. He was no longer the naïve, home-schooled boy from farm country— the music had altered his circuitry, added to his being, whether he knew it or not.
At another time during the past semester, I read a "contribution statement" while attending a leadership symposium. It came from Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, whose words I quoted once before in this column. Zander believes that defining oneself in terms of success or failure is a dead-end. His solution: define yourself as a contribution. What did you contribute today? He suggests that everyone can contribute something, and by writing a contribution statement, you focus your activity. Here is Zander's, and before reading further, I suggest you take a good long breath, because when you finish reading it, that breath will be taken away:
To share the most powerful language ever devised by human beings...that stirs one's soul, rearranges one's molecules, turns one's being inside out. It gives you a new insight on life, a new place to stand, a new range of experience.
He's talking about music, of course. Just sharing that language is contribution enough—the power is in the music. The music does the work. Music has indeed rearranged my student's molecules, turned his being inside out! Nothing else in his life could have done this. Music has changed him, possibly forever.
I'd love to ask Zander how it is that music has this power. My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that music is sound, and sound involves vibrations. Quantum physics tells us that everything vibrates, even solid matter. Could the nature of musical sounds, organized by composers of extraordinary sensitivity, somehow alter our own vibrating consciousness?
For thousands of years, Eastern thought has concerned itself with sphotavada (sound metaphysics), which conceives of all manifestations in the universe, both mind and matter, as consisting of sounds of varying concentration, frequency, and wavelength. According to this ancient Hindu belief system, there are four categories of sound to consider: vaikhari, which is the sound produced by plucking a string; madhyama, which is the transition between heard-sound and its inner vibration; pashyanti, the sound heard only by the spiritually-awakened aspirant; and finally, para (from the Sanskrit word meaning "transcendental" or "beyond"), which lies deeper than ordinary silence—it is an inner sound that is experienced as the unrealized root-sound, or sound potential.
Who knows? For now I am content to contemplate the rustling of the wind in the new oak leaves. My hearing is coming back.